Historically, pepper is one of the most popular and oldest spices. Native to South India, it has been used since antiquity and was a favorite of the ancient Egyptians who used it their mummification process, a fact evidenced by the black peppercorns found in the nostrils of Ramses II1. It was once so valuable that it was used as currency and thus took the name “black gold”.
Pepper comes from a vine like plant which is a member of the Piperaceae family. This plant produces spikes of berries which are harvested to become the pepper that we know and love. This one plant produces black pepper, white pepper, and green pepper and the difference of the three is in the harvesting. Black pepper is the hottest of the 3 and is harvested when the berries are still green - just before they mature.
After harvesting, the berries are dried and become known as peppercorns, which are dark, hard and wrinkly seed-like pods. Typically, the peppercorns are ground in small hand held peppermills which results in the tiny flakes of pepper that we use as seasoning on our food. While pepper is sold pre-ground, it is advisable to buy the peppercorns instead and grind it just before use. The pepper can lose its aromatic smell and taste quite easily after grinding.
Pepper is most popularly used as a seasoning for cooking as well as sprinkled on food right at the table. It usually sits in a shaker alongside the salt to be added at will. Once again, a peppermill on the table is probably a better choice as the pepper produced will be much more flavorful. If you use pepper in your cooking, it’s best to add it right towards the end of the cooking time as this will help preserve it’s wonderful aroma and taste.
We don’t hear to much about medicinal properties of pepper in Western medicine, but it has been used in Eastern medicine for centuries and is said to help with a host of maladies. It is a warming spice and, therefore, can help bring herbs to other parts of the body where their healing effects may be needed. Since it helps signal the stomach to produce more hydrochloric acid.
Once only available to the wealthy, today pepper is widely used by most anyone and is produced in many warm climates including Vietnam, India, Brazil, Thailand, China, Madagascar and Java to name but a few.
InDepthInfo is building a database on many spices and herbs.